A lot is riding on the upcoming HBO drama Westworld. The sprawling sci-fi western inspired by the 1973 film comes from top auspices, writers/executive producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy and executive producer J.J. Abrams. It is set to premiere in the fall after a production shutdown in January to work on the final scripts and following the disappointing debut of another high-profile new HBO drama, Vinyl. 

Westworld, which stars big names such as Anthony Hopkins, James Marsden, Evan Rachel Wood and Ed Harris, took center stage during the Westerns: Then and Now panel at the ATX TV Fest in Austin today. Nearly three minutes of the upcoming HBO series were unveiled, included in an opening sizzle reel along with clips from such shows as Justified and Hell on Wheels,

The footage suggested that the production pulls as much from sci-fi tropes as westerns, with high production values and significant gore. In the panel discussion, Westworld creators Nolan and Joy acknowledged the lofty expectations attached to the show.

“It was actually Game of Thrones that made us feel like we could pull this off,” Nolan said. He also credits the vast diversity of landscapes in California with keeping the scope, and budget of the show manageable.

The show blends the sci-fi and western genres, but also features some comedic moments. Nolan joked, “It’s not apparent from the trailer, but it’s actually a workplace situation comedy.”

The show, whose production issues were not addressed during the panel, is an imposing pursuit, and Nolan says it took his cast a while to wrap their heads around it. He explained an incident during the finale, when the actors were trying to empathize with their characters during a particularly hair-raising scene. “In the finale, it is about this contrast between artificial life that our characters are living. Our show is about the robots who don’t realize that they are in a fake western. They think they are in a real western. So the actors are trying to figure out what that’s like and then they realize, wait, this is f***ing like [actors]!”

The panel also featured discussion with Justified actor Jonathan Tucker, Justified creator Graham Yost; John Wirth, creator of Hell on Wheels, and Anson Mount, star of Hell on Wheels. The talk mostly focused on the challenges that come with making westerns.

In a more poignant moment, the lack of diversity in the mostly white, mostly male genre was brought up. To that end, Joy says of Westworld, “I can’t say with this season that we cover all ground and all people, but I will say that we try to do the actors and the characters themselves the service of loving them.”

She added, “It’s a really wonderful task, because a man like my husband gets to write an African American, well actually she’s British in this, but a prostitute, and it opens your mind a little and question assumptions. Just like it does for me to write a swashbuckling, white gunslinger who’s male. I think it’s a lesson in empathy. It’s humbling and gratifying.”